Islamic influences on Christian art: Wikis


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Left image: A "Bellini type" Islamic prayer rug, seen from the top, at the feet of the Virgin Mary, in Gentile Bellini's Madonna and Child Enthroned, late 15th century.[1]
Right image: Re-entrant prayer rug, Anatolia, late 15th to early 16th century.

Islamic influences on Christian art refers to Islamic artistic traditions that have made an impact on Christian art.


Influences on religious architecture


Carolingian architecture

Left image: Great Mosque of Córdoba, begun 784.
Right image: Arches in the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, begun 794.

Horseshoe arches, as well as the centralized plan, found in Carolingian churches such as Germigny-des-Prés suggest influence from the Mozarabic churches of Islamic Spain.[2] These Mozarabic churches based their form on the earlier Visigothic form of horseshoe arches.[3] Early Carolingian architecture generally combines Roman, Early Christian, Byzantine, Islamic and Northern European designs.[2]

Sicilian architecture

Saracen arches and Byzantine mosaics complement each other within the Palatine Chapel.

Islamic architecture also influenced the design of Christian buildings such as the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, Sicily, where a Arab-Norman culture particularly favoured syncretism. Especially, the ceilings and vault arches seem inspired by Islamic buildings in Fez and Fustat, and reflect the Muquarnas (stalactite) technique [4] Islamic caligraphy was also used in some of these buildings.[5]

Gothic architecture

The rib vault, Cathedral of Reims, France.
The pointed arch reached Europe from the Islamic world.

Throughout the Middle Ages, interactions between Christians, Muslims and Jews were numerous with considerable effect on the architecture of Western Europe.[6] Especially, polychromy, the pointed arch and domes with interlacing ribs may have reached Europe from mosque designs.[6][7]


The rib vault is also thought to have been derived from Islamic architecture: its technique goes back to the Romanesque period when it was adopted from Islamic architecture in Spain from the second half of the 10th century. The precise instance of transmission may be related to the Christian capture of Toledo in 1085 where some of the finest examples of Islamic rib-vaults can be found, as the first experiments in rib-vaulting were started in Italy and England within 10 years of this event.[8]

The pointed arch, developed in the Near East in the 8th century based on earlier Sasanian prototypes, is also thought to have spread from Islamic lands, possibly through Sicily, then under Islamic rule, and from there to Amalfi in Italy, before the end of the 11th century.[9][10]

The diaphragm arch is also considered as either Islamic or Late Antique in origin.[11] The interior courtyard is also an Islamic adaptation.[7]

The techniques of the rib-vault and the pointed arch reduced architectural thrust by about 20% and therefore proved a very attractive substitute to the Romanesque style for the building of large Christian structures.[9] The weight of the rib vault was better channelled downard through pointed arches, diminishing the requirements for buttressing and giving a taller appearance to the structures.[10]

Oleg Grabar refers to unspecified speculation that the Rose window may have Islamic origins as unlikely. "While not excluded on purely chronological grounds since its earliest known instance is in the Ummayad palace at Khirbat al-Mafjar, this conclusion seems highly suspect to me... that both cultures were frequently operating on practically the same kind of 'track' is further suggested by the visual and aesthetic similarities between the ornamental values of flamboyant vaults and Islamic architectural decoration. It is not very likely that a direct impact of one on the other can be demonstrated, and we are certainly dealing with parallel growth."[12]


The Notre-Dame de Paris Gothic masterpiece for example integrates these numerous Islamic innovations.[7] Despite these Romanesque and Islamic precedents however, Gothic architecture, called Opus Francigenum i.e. "French Work" in the Middle Ages and born in the area Ile-de-France around Paris in the 1130s, still represents a significant architectural breakthrough in itself, which succeeded in bringing astounding lightness to religious structures.[13][14]

Scholars of the 18–19th century, who generally disliked the "disorder" of Gothic art and preferred Classical art, overstated the case, claiming that Gothic art fully originated in the Islamic art of the Mosque, to the point of calling it "Saracenical". William John Hamilton commented on the Seljuks monuments in Konya: "The more I saw of this peculiar style, the more I became convinced that the Gothic was derived from it, with a certain mixture of Byzantine (...) the origin of this Gotho-Saracenic style may be traced to the manners and habits of the Saracens"[15][16] The 18th century English historian Thomas Warton would summarize:

"The marks which constitute the character of Gothic or Saracenical architecture, are, its numerous and prominent buttresses, its lofty spires and pinnacles, its large and ramified windows, its ornamental niches or canopies, its sculptured saints, the delicate lace-work of its fretted roofs, and the profusion of ornaments lavished indiscriminately over the whole building: but its peculiar distinguishing characteristics are, the small cluttered pillars and pointed arches, formed by the segments of two interfering circles"
Thomas Warton Essays on Gothic architecture[17]

Besides Islamic influences however, Gothic art also benefited from other influences such as Roman architectural techniques.[8]

Islamic elements in Christian art

Islamic scripts and designs

Pseudo-Kufic script in the Virgin Mary's halo, detail of Adoration of the Magi (1423) by Gentile da Fabriano. The script is further divided by rosettes like those on Mamluk dishes.[18]

The Arabic Kufic script was often imitated in the West during the Middle-Ages and the Renaissance, to produce what is known as pseudo-Kufic: "Imitations of Arabic in European art are often described as pseudo-Kufic, borrowing the term for an Arabic script that emphasizes straight and angular strokes, and is most commonly used in Islamic architectural decoration".[19] Numerous cases of pseudo-Kufic are known in European religious art from around the 10th to the 15th century. Pseudo-Kufic would be used as writing or as decorative elements in textiles, religious halos or frames. Many are visible in the paintings of Giotto.[19]

French ciborium with rim engraved with Arabic script and Islamic-inspired diamond shaped patterns, Limoges, France, 1215-30. British Museum.

Examples are known of the incorporation of Kufic script and Islamic-inspired colourful diamond-shaped designs such as a 13th French ciborium at the British Museum.[20]

The exact reason for the incorporation of pseudo-Kufic in early Renaissance works is unclear. It seems that Westerners mistakenly associated 13–14th century Middle-Eastern scripts as being identical with the scripts current during Jesus's time, and thus found natural to represent early Christians in association with them:[21] "In Renaissance art, pseudo-Kufic script was used to decorate the costumes of Old Testament heroes like David".[22] Another reason might be that artists wished to express a cultural universality for the Christian faith, by blending together various written languages, at a time when the church had strong international ambitions.[23]

Oriental carpets

Verrocchio's Madonna with Saint John the Baptist and Donatus 1475-1483 with small-pattern Holbein Islamic carpet at her feet.
15th century Mamluks depicted in The Arrest of St. Mark from the Synagogue, Giovanni di Niccolò Mansueti, 1499.

Carpets of Middle-Eastern origin, either from the Ottoman Empire, the Levant or the Mamluk state of Egypt or Northern Africa, were used as important decorative features in paintings from the 13th century onwards, and especially in religious painting, starting from the Medieval period and continuing into the Renaissance period.[24]

Such carpets were often integrated into Christian imagery as symbols of luxury and status of Middle-Eastern origin, and together with Pseudo-Kufic script offer an interesting example of the integration of Eastern elements into European painting.[24]

Islamic costumes

Islamic individuals and costumes often provided the contextual backdrop to describe an evangelical scene. This was particularly visible in a set of Venetian paintings in which contemporary Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian and especially Mamluk personages are employed anachronistically in paintings describing Biblical situations.[25] An example in point is the 15th century The Arrest of St. Mark from the Synagogue by Giovanni di Niccolò Mansueti which accurately describes contemporary (15th century) Alexandrian Mamluks arresting Saint Mark in an historic scene of the 1st century CE.[25] Another case is Gentile Bellini's Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria.[26]

Book-binding designs

Elaborate bookbindings with Islamic designs have also often been used to convey knowledge in and express the study of Christian scriptures in religious paintings.[27] In Andrea Mantegna's Saint John the Baptist and Zeno, Saint John and Zeno hold exquisite books with covers displaying Mamluk-style center-pieces, of a type also used in contemporary Italian book-binding.[28]

See also


  1. ^ Bazaar to piazza: Islamic trade and Italian art, 1300-1600 by Rosamond E. Mack p.82-83 [1]
  2. ^ a b A world history of architecture Marian Moffett p.195
  3. ^ Fletcher, Sir Banister and Dan Cruickshankm, Sir Banister Fletcher's a history of architecture, (Linacre House, Jordan Hill, 2001), 380.
  4. ^ Medieval Italy: an encyclopedia by Christopher Kleinhenz p.835
  5. ^ Encyclopedia of Arab American artists Fayeq Oweis p.33
  6. ^ a b A world history of architecture Marian Moffett p.189
  7. ^ a b c Encountering the World of Islam Keith E. Swartley p.74
  8. ^ a b Bony, 12
  9. ^ a b French Gothic Architecture of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries Jean Bony p.17ff [2]
  10. ^ a b Gardner's Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective Fred S. Kleiner p.342 [3]
  11. ^ French Gothic Architecture of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries Jean Bony p.306 [4]
  12. ^ Islamic visual culture, 1100-1800 p.387 Oleg Grabar
  13. ^ A history of Western architecture by David Watkin p.149
  14. ^ Gardner's Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective Fred S. Kleiner p.340 [5]
  15. ^ Researches in Asia Minor, Pontus and Armenia William John Hamilton p.206 [6]
  16. ^ Oriental panorama: British travellers in 19th century Turkey Reinhold Schiffer p.141 [7]
  17. ^ Essays on Gothic architecture by Thomas Warton p.14
  18. ^ Mack, p.65-66
  19. ^ a b Mack, p.51
  20. ^ British Museum exhibit
  21. ^ Mack, p.52, p.69
  22. ^ Freider. p.84
  23. ^ "Perhaps they marked the imagery of a universal faith, an artistic intention consistent with the Church's contemporary international program." Mack, p.69
  24. ^ a b Mack, p.73-93
  25. ^ a b Mack, p.161
  26. ^ Mack, p.164-65
  27. ^ Mack, p.125-37
  28. ^ Mack, p.127-28


  • Braden K. Frieder Chivalry & the perfect prince: tournaments, art, and armor at the Spanish Habsburg court Truman State University, 2008 ISBN 193111269X, ISBN 9781931112697
  • Mack, Rosamond E. Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300-1600, University of California Press, 2001 ISBN 0520221311


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